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Colonial Comparison: The Rights of Englishmen

90 min
  • Students will be able to explain how the colonial charters reflected the traditional rights of Englishmen by analyzing four colonial charters.
  • Students will be able to show how colonial charters reflect constitutional principles by comparing constitutional themes in four colonial charters.

You might have students give specific references rather than just placing a check in the Later Laws column. For example, in the Jury Trial row, they would note the Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You might even make a competition out of this step and provide a prize (homework pass, and so forth) to the group that correctly completes this column first.)

1. Ask students to brainstorm a list of some constitutional principles and have them provide the definition of each. As students generate answers, write these principles on the board.

2. Point out that these principles did not become part of the American identity randomly; they reflected English heritage. Ask and have students discuss the following question:

  1. If you were starting a society from scratch along with a group of people who had migrated to a completely unfamiliar continent, which of these principles would be most important to you?

1. Have students read the Background section of Handout A: The Rights of Englishmen, American Style to provide the context for the comparison exercise. As a class, discuss any questions and observations that students may have related to this background.

2. Students should discuss these sourcing questions for the primary source excerpts:

  1. Who wrote each of the charters?
  2. What is the purpose of a colonial charter?
  3. Who is the intended audience for each of these charters?
  4. What continuing significance could be represented in these documents, which are more than three centuries old?

3. Divide the class into two groups. One group will focus on the Virginia and Maryland charters, and the other will focus on the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania charters. Have students work with a partner or two to read and annotate the assigned excerpts of Handout B: Excerpts from Colonial Charters before giving them Handout C: Graphic Organizer: Colonial Charters. Annotations should reflect examples they find in the charters of the constitutional principles addressed in the warm-up activity, as well as noting any similarities/differences that they identify between the two charters they are initially assigned.

4. Have students combine with another pair who read and annotated the other documents, jigsaw style. Each new group should include students who worked on all four documents. Have them compare with one another the annotations they made in their original working groups, giving special attention to constitutional principles.

5. Distribute Handout C: Graphic Organizer: Colonial Charters. Students should complete Handout C for all four documents.

6. After students have briefly compared their notes, they should discuss the following questions as a group:

  1. In what ways are the colonial charters similar?
  2. In what ways are they different?
  3. What, if anything, did you find most surprising in your review of the documents?

1. After students have completed the graphic organizer, they should answer the following questions. Then, conduct a whole-class discussion based on these debrief questions:

  1. Based on your review of excerpts of these four charters, what rights do you believe are included in the phrase, “traditional rights of Englishmen”?
  2. Based on your study of these excerpts, to what extent, if at all, do the most prevalent constitutional themes seem to change over time?
  3. Give specific examples of ideas related to democracy, freedom, and individualism in the charters.
  4. What cultural values and political institutions at this early time in the English colonies contributed to the development of an American identity?
  5. To what extent do these documents foreshadow protections with which you are familiar in the twenty-first century?